The new series of Sherlock Holmes, season four, and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Great Man, started on January 1. The episode was named “The Six Thatchers.” I confess here that I am a Sherlock fan, revering the fourteen films of Conan Doyle’s stories between 1939 and 1946 and Basil Rathbone as the hero, and Jeremy Brett’s portrayal as Holmes between 1984 and 1994. All things considered, I was considerably frustrated by “The Six Thatchers.” I have long felt, with increasing irritation, that the special effects in the Sherlock series and other films are overdone and thus overshadow what should be a strong story and an equally well-made, fascinating plot. There are often too many special effects that dominate these films and spoil them for the part of the audience looking forward to an excellent Holmes adventure. Why, in this particular effort to depict Sherlock Holmes, does the film fail?
For one thing, the characterization of Holmes is so weak on Conan Doyle’s side that the detective is often impossible to impersonate, explain, or analyze. The list of famous actors who have tried to bring Sherlock to life is long. Conan Doyle depicted Holmes as scarcely human. Sherlock says of himself, “I am a brain, Watson. the rest of me is a mere appendix.” The detective lives only for the next case, one that will challenge his great brain, and when he can’t find a puzzle, he escapes consciousness by taking drugs. The only person he really puts up with is Dr. Watson, a buffoon in the early films, and a decent and earnest man in the Brett films. The only thing that can impress viewers in this whole character is his monumental brain and what he does with it. And that is the problem writers and producers have when they try to bring Holmes to public view.
This film fails in large part because the writers, knowing full well the problems of Sherlock as a human character of interest, must depend on the plot to succeed. But the story lacks coherence, making people like me want a fuller story with the obvious gaps filled in. For example, what exactly did Mary Watson do wrong and how exactly did it come about? Now if the main character can’t be developed well because of his great defect of being unrealistic, and the story itself doesn’t work well, what else can writers do but fall back on special effects?
In attempting to make up for these problems with Holmes as a human being, the writers roll everything into a colossal, bewildering extravaganza of special effects; they make the film so visually exciting but often so bewildering that the audience forgets what is supposed to be happening in the story. Sherlock moves in a world of special effects that are shadows upon shadows. People and things are sometimes murky, as if the effects are drug-related. There are spots of coherence that make sense but then more effects that give the appearance of nightmares. Audiences are starting to see this overuse of CGI. Ebony Bowden writes, “In the early days of CGI, filmmakers could only superimpose a computer-generated component onto a real scene…. Today, they’re able to generate entire sequences using computers….Movies saturated with CGI can become too ‘glossy,’ say some animators, and audiences are seeing right through it.” And in the rush to use more and more CGI which has become tiring and sterile, we have lost Holmes.